A Restoration Story: Breathing New Life Into a $45 Timex “Roulette”

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Timex, oftentimes one of the most overlooked brands in watchmaking, has a long and storied history, forever intertwined with the East Coast’s Industrial Revolution that grew America, and in some way or another, it still endures. New York designer Todd Snyder recently collaborated with Timex on a watch dug up from the company’s extensive archives: a relatively obscure “roulette” or “bullseye” dial based on an early 1970s design. The result is, as Snyder calls it, The Mod Watch, and we wrote about it and its inspiration here.

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Todd Snyder’s incredibly popular Mod Watch reissue.

Mod: Ministry of Defense. Or mod: young hep cats in suits, on Vespas.

I loved it, and I loved both concepts. Snyder’s Mod Watch may not have had any authentic military bearing, unlike the rarefied Timex military watches that also garnered my attention. But it was eye-catching. It was simple. It was based around a ’70s design, and the ’70s was when the watchmaking world threw down its figurative hair and introduced colors, patterns, and fun to their designs. And it looked damn good on a nylon mil-strap—and I am nothing if not a slave to the allure of a good mil-strap.

The thing is, there’s that curious tick in my mind that not only appreciates the design of yesterday’s watches, but also asks: if the reissue looks so good, why not find the original?

So, I found one.

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And it’s a beaut, though it could certainly use a trip to the spa.
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This vintage Timex was once marketed as part of the Sprite family. It is cheap—then as well as now, though admittedly not so much so today. It is powered by the hand-cranking M24/M25 calibers. These movements have a simple pin-lever escapement—sealed, but still can be reasonably disassembled with a few twists of a screwdriver. During World War II, Timex and other American watchmakers developed a tough metal alloy called Armalloy, and in lieu of jewels, these movements sported Armalloy-hardened bearings. (The later caliber M75 sported 21 jewels.) Timex cranked these cheap movements out by the hundreds of thousands. Unlike the M24 movement, the M25 features a date wheel. In the interest of simplicity, many M24s didn’t even come with a second hand.

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A hard-wearing M24 caliber in all its simple, utilitarian glory.

The dial features enviable, irreproducible patina. (If it cost five figures, might we be calling it a “tropic” dial?”) Almost the entire red ring had faded off by this point, which seemed to reflect a watch well-worn, out there in the never-ending sunlight and heat of Corpus Cristi, Texas, where it was being offered via eBay.

The rest of the watch, however, needed some extensive work. The case was scratched as if thrown into a washing machine, its plating cracked in thin stripes, threatening to peel off. The lugs were bent. The crystal looked like it had been dragged behind an Vietnam-era gun truck. Surely it must’ve taken a hell of a licking. Who would buy such an old, faded, worthless thing? Who would bother giving it any due on the way to the smelter? What was the point?

timex-roulette-1Of course, I bought it. For ten bucks less than the asking price, too.

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A week or two later, it arrived at the doorstep of one Nate Bartush in Dallas. Nate is a friend who is that rarest of creatures: a young person (!) who actually graduated from watchmaking school.

Nate had started off on a computer engineering degree before he grew tired of it. A natural-born tinkerer, he “fell into watches.” He attended the Texas Institute of Jewelry Technology at the Paris Junior College, outside of Dallas, Texas. It is one of the eight remaining schools in America that still has a watchmaking program. When Nate started, he was in a class of just six. Two years later, he graduated with three other students.

It’s a tough path, and the first semester is seen to weed out the unmotivated—much like any freshman-year engineering program. But what Nate enjoyed the most was the focus on vintage watch restoration.

“Frank [the instructor] may go into his back room and come out with a dirt-covered watch which literally hasn’t been opened up in 30 years and have you open it up and fix it.” One of the most memorable watches he worked on at school, he told me, was a British pocket watch from the 1700s.

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The case is plated base metal. Fixing the bent lugs presented a problem.

When Nate graduated, he moved back home to his native Laramie, Wyoming. He took a job at a small mom-and-pop store, but he kept his feelers out for more opportunities.

“There are more places looking for watchmakers than there are graduating watchmakers coming out of schools,” he said. “If you graduate from any of the schools here in the US you’ll be qualified to apply with just about anywhere looking.

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In addition to Paris’ program, Dallas is also home to one of the three Rolex Service Centers in America; the North American Institute of Swiss Watchmaking, which teaches the international WOSTEP program; and the service center for the Richemont Group, which owns Piaget, A. Lange & Söhne, Baume & Mercier, IWC, Panerai—some of the world’s most high-end watch brands. In fact, the service center is located in the same building as the Swiss institute.

So, Nate returned to Dallas. He had wanted to join Richemont’s graduate program, but was rejected: he had too much experience.

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Instead, they gave him a bench test. He passed and received a job offer. And for the past three years, he’s worked for Piaget, servicing everything dating back to the ’50s as well as the occasional Van Cleef & Arpels. “I love it, it’s great,” he said. “I love the variety of things I get to see.”

The most expensive watch Nate ever repaired, that he could remember, anyway, was a one-off Piaget estimated at $700,000.

So, naturally, he was the ideal man to take a look at my $45 Timex.

When Nate first received the watch, it ran well for a day and a half (Timex estimated the M24/M25 movement to have a 42-hour reserve). Winding and setting was “rough.” The 16mm lugs were bent by nearly two millimeters, and Nate expressed his concern that if he were to straighten them out, the plating would fall off. He told me, “I’m more used to working with gold, so I’m not positive how much I can do with the base metal.”

There were other problems. “The crown looks like it has an internal gasket,” he explained, “and it’s probably hardened and mostly useless from age. I haven’t pulled it apart to check yet, though. It’s possible it may be salvageable.”

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Nate showed his skill. The lugs straightened out fine, incidentally; no loss of plating, and no drama. He then cleaned out the movement and found a replacement crystal. The watch already looked a million times better: clean, devoid of distractions, with nothing but that wonderfully faded dial to focus on shining through a perfect new crystal. He even threw in some added functionality and repainted the lume.

The crown was giving him trouble, though. “Turns out, Timex made their crowns and stems a single piece, so the crown alone can’t be changed.” The solution? Removing the old gasket via some picking and a few acetone baths. “I found a replacement gasket which should fit in,” he told me. “I can’t guarantee water resistance, though.”

“Pro tip,” he continued, “unless they’ve passed a pressure test, assume all vintage watches are not water resistant—even if they’re marked as such.” Fair enough.

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Nate’s magic touch pays off.

He then sent me the photos you’re now gawking at, and then the watch.

I loved it. I bought a 16mm grey mil-strap (just like the designer-issue one above), threw it on, and then strapped it to my wrist. It is absurdly small. The idea that this watch was a rough-and-tumble timepiece for men’s thick, hairy tree-trunk wrists is laughable by today’s far-reaching standards.

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Nevertheless, it’s an absolute stunner on the wrist, and so easy to wear.

“Is this the cheapest watch you’ve ever worked on?” I asked Nate.

“Actually, when I was at the mom-and-pop shop in Wyoming, one of the cheapest ones I worked on was a little watch this lady got from a box of Sugar Smacks Cereal. It meant a lot to her for sentimental reasons.”

I didn’t get this watch in a cereal box, but it definitely wouldn’t surprise me if I found it in one. I wound up with a real gem—a little curiosity from the Timex archives with a patina that can only be achieved by age, and nothing else. Getting this one patched up was an absolute pleasure, and now I’m left with a piece with that mythical quality of authenticity that we prize so much.

Images from this post:

Hailing from the middle coast of Austin, Texas, Blake Z. Rong is a freelance writer, researcher, one-time podcast host, and occasional automotive journalist. When he was 13, he took apart a quartz watch and forgot how to put it back together again. His love for watches has lingered ever since. He can usually be found on his motorcycle speeding across Texas Hill Country.

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  • chenpofu

    Good stuff.

  • Johan Nilsson

    Lovely story. Lovely watch. This totally proves that economical value, or lack of it, doesn’t matter in making a watch great.

  • sɐıqoʇ

    So wonderful to read this. Awesome to hear of great craftsmanship still having an (albeit limited place) in the US. Kids (and their parents) should hear these stories to learn and understand that there is appreciation for this type of trade (and others). Not everyone needs to (or should) go to college. Find your passion and pursue it.

    • Andrew Hughes

      I have to say that it is interesting how you flipped your name on your avatar? What trickery is this?!

      • sɐıqoʇ

        There’s an app for that called “crazy text”. Then I just copied and pasted it into my twitter account

        • Andrew Hughes

          That is crazy and interesting. Never seen that before…

  • Andrew Hughes

    I was so happy to read a story about a Timex (an old friend of mine). It was great to hear about an obtainable, yet cool watch and what it took to get it sorted. This is a nice break from the reviews of uber expensive and somewhat alien watches that seem like they were dropped from outer space… at NASA prices. I vote yes to more personal stories like this and the people behind the scenes like Nate.

    • egznyc

      I couldn’t agree with you more. This was just great fun, and very relatable (even though I have no watch making skills). A lot of us have a nostalgic side we don’t always get to tap into but it’s there and stories like this are very human.

  • Louis Juarez

    I stumbled across this article and remembered I have one of these watches somewhere in my stash of watches I don’t wear . I liked the article and decided to clean and service the watch and have ordered a gray NATO strap which seems to complement this watch . To repeat what Blake said though, ” It is absurdly small.”

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